Friday, November 14, 2014

Social Activism vs. the Local Church

“For many today it is far easier to be committed to social justice in South Africa, to the restoration of communities on the Gulf Shore following Katrina, to cleaning up from the devastating tornadoes of the Plains, or to fighting sexual trafficking in any country than it is to be committed to building community and establishing fellowship in one’s local church. I hate to put it this way, but I must: it is easier to do the former because it feels good,…Not only that, it is good and right and noble and loving and compassionate and just. It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard….But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church’s mission shapes kingdom mission.”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Substance of Sermons

When you read the works by C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers intended for popular consumption you can tell they have read and understood Nietzsche, Freud, and Hegel. You will hear echoes of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the theology of Augustine and Aquinas.

When you hear many modern-day sermons you hear echoes of Osteen, sitcoms, popular movies, motivational speakers, and books written by professional coaches.

I wonder why the modern American church is largely unprepared for the challenges it currently faces? 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On Patience

"So amply sufficient a Depositary of patience is God. If it be a wrong which you deposit in His care, He is an Avenger; if a loss, He is a Restorer; if pain, He is a Healer; if death, He is a Reviver. What honour is granted to Patience, to have God as her Debtor! And not without reason: for she keeps all His decrees; she has to do with all His mandates. She fortifies faith; is the pilot of peace; assists charity; establishes humility; waits long for repentance; sets her seal on confession; rules the flesh; preserves the spirit; bridles the tongue; restrains the hand; tramples temptations under foot; drives away scandals; gives their crowning grace to martyrdoms; consoles the poor; teaches the rich moderation; overstrains not the weak; exhausts not the strong; is the delight of the believer; invites the Gentile; commends the servant to his lord, and his lord to God; adorns the woman; makes the man approved; is loved in childhood, praised in youth, looked up to in age; is beauteous in either sex, in every time of life."

Tertullian, "General Summary of the Virtues and Effects of Patience" in On Patience

Monday, October 06, 2014

Those Darn Christian Missionary Doctors!

"These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae [fellowship], they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes." Roman Emperor Julian, second half of the 4th century AD.

Fast forward 1700 years, and we read this in Slate:

And yet, for secular Americans—or religious Americans who prefer their medicine to be focused more on science than faith—it may be difficult to shake a bit of discomfort with the situation. Our historic ambivalence toward missionary medicine has crystallized into suspicion over the past several decades. It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?

Brian Palmer, the author of the provocatively titled article, "In Medicine We Trust: Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?" goes on to complain that large regions in Africa are, in essence, not first-world. They lack first-world secular (he qualifies words like 'medicine' with the word 'secular') facilities and reporting standards. Thus, we have even more reason to be worried that Christian missionary doctors are unsupervised and on the loose. He is not alone in his complaint. Both Ann Coulter and Donald Trump have added their far more personal attacks to his concerns. After listing a few of his worries about African medical systems, he adds:

And yet, truth be told, these valid critiques don’t fully explain my discomfort with missionary medicine. If we had thousands of secular doctors doing exactly the same work, I would probably excuse most of these flaws. “They’re doing work no one else will,” I would say. “You can’t expect perfection.”

So, clearly, his primary beef is with the qualifier 'Christian' in the medical care. He would trust secular physicians for no other reason other than they are secular.

The problem is, and this is where he opens his article, secular doctors are not there. And might I add, we should not hold our breath.

As someone who understands Christian history and theology, and who is in a fair amount of contact with a lot of missionaries all around the globe, let me add a couple of thoughts to his.

Christian missionary doctors are there because their theology and historical DNA compel them. In this case Christian theology reveals itself as an anthropology and sociology: all human beings are of infinite value because they are created in the image of the God who really exists. This fundamental belief has the profound theoretical consequence of not allowing Christians to take human suffering lightly. And for those with the means and education, it turns into the practical consequence of traveling where others don't want to go to do the things others don't want to do. (As a side note, the Christian missionary world is way ahead of the secular world in bringing drinkable water to the developing world for the same reason.)

As for their historical DNA, acts of compassion are, for all intents and purposes, the invention of the Christian world. This seems like a radical claim, but history reveals a story bereft of compassion for the 'least of these' until Christians showed up and started taking care of them. The quote from the Emperor Julian is a case in point. Everything we now know as compassion, legitimately understood, is a result of what Christians have done as they imitate Christ as best they can. Even down to funerals for the poor. The influence of Christianity is that deep and ubiquitous. See the works of Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt on this neglected topic.

As for the 'problem' of Christian missionaries also talking about Christ, two more thoughts are in order.

For the Christian, the very act of taking care of those in need ought to be done in the name of Christ, and is thus, in itself, a witness to the care and love within our faith. On one level, the act itself is the witness. Secondly, the Christian cares for humans because they know them to be eternal beings. Everyone has a existence that extends beyond this physical life, and so the consequences of the Christian message for those lives is enormous. It is popular right now to expect Christians to be privately Christian, but that has been popular before and has failed tremendously before. Many individual Christians will be successfully silenced, but there is no hiding or privatizing the Christian faith.

It really may be the case that Ebola-ridden regions of Africa are devoid of secular doctors because they simply have no compelling reason to be there. Many talk a big game, but Christians are already there and will have made tremendous physical and spiritual strides long before the vaunted secular world catches up.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Suffering For The Church, And Loving It!

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Colossians 1:24

What commonly strikes us about this passage is the phrase, “I rejoice in my sufferings,” and it is startling, indeed. Most of us are not accustomed to, much less comfortable with, suffering so we wonder how on earth someone can say something like this. It dawned on me, however, that the substance of Paul’s statement is not about his suffering, but about the institution and people for whom he suffers. In fact, Paul’s vision of that organization, the Church, is so powerful his sufferings pale in comparison. But do not make the mistake of thinking they become less important to him because of the surpassing importance of the Church. His suffering does not “fade into the background” – it becomes something new and powerful and a reason for rejoicing.

The Church is just that important to people who are called to give their lives to the church. Pastor, this means you. And disciple of Jesus Christ, you are not exempt.

Paul suffered greatly in order to take the most important message a human can hear around the Mediterranean world and many of his exploits are dramatically recounted in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. There are pastors and Christians around the world today who still face the same kinds of obstacles and trials because they bear the name of Christ, but many in the West (today) do not experience suffering of the same sort. This does not mean, however, the pastor does not suffer for the flock.

Try building a meaningful vocation in which the definitions of success are diametrically opposed to the definitions of success in the culture around you. This means that when people look at your work and gauge your value, they are measuring apples (which often do not exist in “desired” numbers) when you are striving to grow oranges. Not only is the tension of success a struggle brought to the pastor from outside him or herself, it sits deep within their own hearts. We grew up in this culture, too. We also see the celebrity and financial status of those who have “succeeded” and we wonder what has gone wrong with us. We need to have poison drawn from our own minds as well, and it does not always leave easily.

Pastors and committed disciples of Christ rejoice when someone comes to put their trust in Christ, and they rejoice at every step along the way when that life shows signs of Christ himself. But because our work is so connected with the people God created and loves, we feel deep pain at those who drift in the opposite direction. In some ways, the life of the pastor is constant heartbreak. At the end of Paul’s list of stonings, floggings, and shipwrecks, he lists what sounds like the greatest burden he endures, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (vs. 28).

But the life of the Church and those within it is so valuable, Paul has actually learned that when he exerts tremendous effort, when he prays until he weeps himself dry, when he exhausts himself and the Church is built, it is all joy.

Do we seek exhaustion and pain? Of course not. But can we learn to place our trials and efforts for the sake of Christ and his Church in a new context? Of course we can – and we should. And it begins with reevaluating what we consider valuable in this world and what we are willing to give for its health.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"God is wrathful because God is Love"

"I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of god’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love."

Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 138-139.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Church In Antioch: A Church In The City

Acts 11 tells the story of a new church in a big city.  Because of persecution Jewish Christians scattered out of Jerusalem and some of them made it 300 miles north to the major metropolis of Antioch. While Jerusalem was large, Antioch was larger and more diverse. History tells us it was the Mediterranean’s third largest city of the day, sitting at the crossroads of every major economy and ethnic group in the area. When the Romans conquered the area it left the city basically intact, declared it free, made it the seat of the Roman governor in the region, and absorbed much of the residual Syrian religion. As a result a large temple just outside of the city was adapted for the Roman pantheon and became famous for its cultic prostitution. Antioch was advanced and dynamic. It was also debauched.

During the 30’s AD, Christians began to show up and preach, as Luke puts it, that Jesus is Lord. The church grew among the Jews in the city and then quickly spread to the Gentiles. The church grew and drew the attention of the apostles in Jerusalem. They sent Barnabas, Barnabas brought Saul, and within a generation the church at Antioch surpassed the influence of Jerusalem and became the center of the early church for nearly two hundred years. The disciples in Antioch were so dynamic, it was there they were first labeled, “little Christs.”

The church in Antioch gives us some important things to think about.

Often the “foreign mission” is across the street or across town from us. When they first arrived the Christians preached only to the Jews. But Antioch was full of “others” who needed to hear and it was not long before they did. And because the church was actively opening its arms to literally everyone, a dynamic and powerful church was built. Every church in every modern city is not far from people who are drastically different. They are from different cultures and they have different native tongues. But the church has never (when it is right with God) been turned off by that. More than ever, the modern city, even of modest size, is full of “mission field” people. We send missionaries around the globe and we ought to send them across town.

The church preached a simple message: “Jesus is Lord.” It was clearly full of the message of the resurrected Savior, but Luke notes its simple and effective focus in a pluralistic, pagan culture. Jesus is unique and he alone is Lord of all. He is greater than all other idols and forms of worship, and the human soul will find its rest alone in him. Without neglecting the full gospel, the contemporary church can learn from a simple laser focus of a message like this. No other substitute for God will do for human experience.

The church was unafraid to throw its message into a crowded and hostile public square. They could have stayed in the corner of culture where they found relative comfort in the Jewish neighborhoods and Synagogues, but they did not. They stepped out into the fray and talked about Jesus to the Romans and Persians on their way to their temple sacrifices. And it worked. It can be fairly said that the greatest mistake the church can make in the city is to fail to step out into the public area with the objective and powerful truth of Jesus Christ.

New Atheism's New Problems

After a period of pop-culture bullying on its part, there appears to be a growing backlash against the bluster of what is often called New Atheism.  At a recent conference called TAM, one of the leading skeptics in the movement was accused of getting one girl drunk and raping her. This long article at Buzzfeed tells the story and then expands its focus to talk about a broader culture of abuse within the movement. A family friendly version of the account can be found here at ENV. In part it states,

The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting... — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.

Add to that the more recent tumbling of another New Atheist hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has been caught in various untruths and misattributions. When called on the carpet for these mounting untruths, his response has been decidedly unscientific.  What matters is the theater of the moment, not the facts.

Even more disturbing is the defense you hear from Tyson himself and from his legions of fans: that the accuracy of the quotes doesn’t really matter, they’re just convenient illustrations to get attention, get people thinking, and promote his pro-science message.
 But there’s the rub, isn’t it? How do you promote a pro-science message by saying that the facts don’t really matter?

I think two issues stick out as a result of these accusations.

First, much of what has passed for science and the supposed rational superiority of atheism/naturalism has largely been the result of public force and intimidation, not reasoned argument. The perceived strength of New Atheism is a classic case of the emperor having no clothes. Dawkins' books are used in college philosophy classes as examples of bad argumentation. Reading Hitchens' books is an exercise in listening to someone espouse and believe in attacks on the Christian faith that were exposed as empty one hundred years ago. Engage an ardent atheist and 99 times out of 100 you will uncover argumentative fallacies, emotional aggravation, intimidation, and belittling.  It is a bitter fact of public atheism today - very little of it is philosophically reasoned.

That is not to say there is not any philosophically robust atheist thought out there. It just doesn't see the light of day among New Atheists right now. Anyone can still read Russell or the pre-conversion Antony Flew, but apparently not many of the new-fangled apologists for metaphysical naturalism do.

Second, does atheism have the moral chops necessary to correct these problems? Will the atheist community even see them as problems?  And here is the deeper philosophical question. Atheism lacks an objective moral standard. So it will not, in the long run, be able to condemn immorality in any kind of substantive fashion. For example, a worldview cannot simultaneously mock and politic against the Christian values of chastity and marriage and condemn sexual misadventure. In the short run it sure seems they can, because in many instances they try very hard to do so.  But once the dust settles from the accusations and the emotions of the moment, a question remains. Says who?

Every atheist attempt at grounding moral judgment fails to find solid ground outside of subjective human judgment or cultural consensus. This is, by nature of the worldview, necessarily true. Kant, who felt the unflinching reality of moral realities, worked hard to develop an utterly rationalistic morality. But even his Categorical Imperative fails its own test. The Utilitarianism of Mill and Rousseau’s nature - these and many more are valiant yet failed attempts at grounding morality without appealing to a personal being beyond our cultural conventions.

So the new atheist relies often on current political notions of "progress" and moral ideas that are easy to enforce via propaganda and sitcoms in our cultural atmosphere. But all those things are intellectual sand castles and it takes almost no time and effort to rationally disagree. And by virtue of the nature of relativism, the very act of disagreeing renders them impotent. So I disagree. Atheism does not have a rational standard that allows it to call chastity prudish, celebrate sexual liberation, and at the same time condemn sexual abuse. It also apparently does not have the philosophical courage to claim a scientific “just the facts, ma’am” stance and call out its hero de jour for propagandistic falsehoods.

New Atheism has a growing problem, and it isn’t recalcitrant Christians. It is its lack of firm footing for its own belief system and lifestyle.